There are a few things we always do upon arrival. We’re usually traveling for a couple of months so some of these may not apply to you.
Everyone’s first stop is immigration for the required document inspection and passport stamp.
Next Stop Duty Free
You are allowed to purchase duty free liquor, cigarettes and cosmetics on your way in (after immigration but before customs in either international airport). If you drink, stock up at the duty free shops near baggage claim – we pick up a bottle of 25 year old Centenario rum as a guest gift for our friend’s treehouse.
This used to be a big deal but now that we have free unlimited text and data worldwide from T-Mobile we just switch off airplane mode then WhatsApp mom and dad to let them know we landed and to make sure everything is working.
If you don’t have T-Mobile then either advance purchase an international plan from your carrier before leaving home – roaming can be exorbitant- or buy a Costa Rican SIM card in the airport near baggage claim before you pass through customs.
Get Some Cash
Never use the exchange window at the airport, the fees are outrageous. In late 2018 the exchange counter offered a sell rate of ¢515 and buy at ¢697. That is a 35% differential which is an astronomical price to pay to have some local currency.
Get and use a no fee ATM card to stop at a cash machine and withdraw some Colones and maybe U.S. dollars if you don’t already have some. Menus and price tags in Costa Rica may be in either US$ or CR¢ and it’s best to pay in the posted currency.
If you’re from the U.S. bring dollars with you. If you’re from Europe or Canada you can withdraw U.S. dollars or Costa Rican Colones from most cash machines. You can spend $US in the supermarket (or almost anywhere else) and they’ll give you your change in Colones at a fair rate without excess fees.
Make copies of the photo/id page and the entry stamp pages of our passports and driver’s licenses. When renting a car they make paper copies for their files so ask them to make extras.
Foreigners traveling in Costa Rica are required to have in their possession at all times either their passport -OR- a legible copy of the photo and entry stamp pages of their passports. We prefer to leave our originals in the hotel safe and carry copies when rafting, hiking, zip-lining etc.
The regulations on this haven’t caught up with the modern age and technically the copy is still supposed to be a paper xerox. We have a compact waterproof camera that goes everywhere we go so we usually just take a picture with that and have never had any problems using it instead of paper. You could use your phone but remember you might want to leave that in the safe while waterfall rappelling or hanging out at the beach.
The driver’s license copies aren’t necessary but have come in handy.
Water & Coffee
Head to the supermarket and pick up small (1 liter) plus large (5 or 25 liter) bottles of water.
Use the little ones to carry on hikes, to the beach etc. and the big ones to refill the little ones when the hotel or lodge doesn’t provide a bottled water cooler.
The water in Costa Rica used to be safe to drink everywhere. Now (especially in some beach areas) there are exceptions. If you aren’t sure where the water is good and where it’s not then it’s better to be safe than sorry.
$29.95 glass and stainless silicone sleeved shock proof insulated personal hydration flasks (maybe with a built in UV sterilizer?) are great but may be stolen off the beach if you don’t keep a close eye on them. We just reuse the Dasani or Evian plastic bottle for the duration and recycle it at the end of the trip.
While we’re at the supermarket we also pick up a 500gr bag of 1820 coffee (tuesto oscuro) and a package of filters. There are usually coffee makers and “coffee service packs” in the room in better hotels and lodges but the amount of garbage they generate is ridiculous. We’d rather just carry our own.
Grab some chips, crackers and other snacks for the car or late night in the lodge, resort or hotel. Remember the Pringles in the minibar are $6.50.
Stop at a department store to buy small pile (polar fleece) blankets (sometimes they also have them at budget supermarkets like Maxi Pali).
Sounds strange since we’re in the tropics, but these blankets are one of our most important creature comforts while traveling.
Here’s why. Electricity is extremely expensive in Costa Rica so hotels and lodges do everything they can to minimize consumption. This often means that in an air conditioned room the bed will only have a sheet on it – no blanket or comforter. The idea is that guests would use more air conditioning if blankets were available. You could bring these from home but they’re bulky and you can pick them up cheap after you arrive – usually about $7.
I understand conservation and I’m all for it but I also like to get some sleep. If I wake up at 2:30 a.m. freezing my butt off I could get up and change the thermostat then wait an hour for it to warm up in the room but I’d much rather just pull on a light blanket and go back to sleep.
It can take three or four nights to figure out what the real temperature at bed level is when you set the a/c thermostat to 25 °C (77 °F) and you may never figure out what’s comfortable on a “high,” “medium,” “low” scale.
Sometimes I buy a super cheap pillow. Usually the cheaper it is the thinner it is and I like mine pretty flat. Hotels and lodges typically provide big, luxurious super pillows resembling couch cushions.